Bicyclists looking for a ride that is off the beaten path might try the Arlington History Bicycle Ride.
This is an insider's look at a county camouflaged by high-rise Rosslyn, the shadow of the District of Columbia and elevated highways. Trail users expecting scenic panoramas, four-legged creatures and an escape from cars will find a little bit of all of these, but the focus of this route is to connect a few remaining reminders of Arlington as it used to be.
It's easy to get lost on the trail, but what it lacks in convenience it makes up for in quiet, modest discoveries. It wiggles along bicycle paths and residential roads that were designed to discourage cars from taking detours off arterial streets.
The 23-mile trail is for anyone "looking for a different kind of bicycle ride," said trail creator Randy Swart, who has lived in the county 18 years but started delving into its past less than a decade ago. "It's for someone who rides enough that they won't be daunted by 23 miles, but won't be too tired to enjoy the stops."
"It's more of a point-to-point ride," Swart said. The 12 historical landmarks on the trail include the little-known Arlington Historical Museum, the mansion of Robert E. Lee and an 18th-century house for which Glebe Road was named.
"The goal is to introduce people to Arlington's history," Swart said. "To me, it's always more interesting to understand the background" of a place "rather than just drive by it . . . . You begin to see how Arlington was carved out of Northern Virginia, how it really is a corner of the District."
Swart began devising the tour about eight years ago, after noticing Glebe House for the first time and becoming curious about local history. "If you've driven for years on Glebe Road and then suddenly notice Glebe House, it makes a connection that's very powerful."
The concept of the bicycle tour came naturally to him: Swart is a member of the Arlington Historical Society, the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club and the Washington Area Bicycle Association, and director of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. After guiding an annual historic bicycle tour of the county for several years, Swart hooked up with some county employees who volunteered free time to put together the self-guided map, complete with a short description on each historical site.
The tour begins and ends at the Arlington Historical Museum at 1805 South Arlington Ridge Rd., which is open only on weekends and serves as an instructive launching point. Inside the museum, a restored 19th-century schoolhouse, is an overview of local history since Indian times.
Among exhibits at the museum are a restored classroom, one of the first televisions in the county, Civil War-era artifacts and portraits of famous residents.
"We aren't well known, and we're off the beaten track," said Kathy Hamblett, a member of the historical society and a volunteer docent at the museum. However, "there's just so much of Arlington history here and we do change exhibits pretty often."
Riders may opt to save time by taking the more direct arterial streets, but would be wise to take along a street map and the map of the bicycle trail. Navigating in Arlington is tricky for those unfamiliar with the street system. For example, there are eight separate Fourth Streets and two Fourth Roads.
Swart acknowledged that some pedalers may not have the patience to try the route. "I don't have any illusions about it being everybody's tour. It wouldn't even interest some people in Arlington," let alone those who live in other counties, he said.
However, he added, "it's very important to take people back. They start to think of their community as an ongoing process. A lot of people who have moved here recently might ask you if Arlington has a history, and this helps to answer that question."